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EPA Watered Down Major Fracking Study to Downplay Water Contamination Risks

A stunning new report from Marketplace and APM Reports reveals that top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials made critical, last-minute changes to the agency's major fracking assessment to soft-pedal clear evidence that the controversial drilling process contaminates the nation's water supplies.

Fracking operations in Dimock, Pennsylvania contaminated local water supplies. Flickr

We've already seen how fracking and drinking water do not mix, and even earlier versions of the EPA assessment said that spills are a problem. But on June 4, 2015, the agency released its executive summary and corresponding press materials with the misleading takeaway that "there is no evidence fracking has led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

The EPA's pro-fracking spin baffled many experts and scientists and contradicted what many landowners were seeing in their chemically laden water. Major media outlets also went with headlines that put fracking in the clear, such as the New York Times "Fracking Has Not Had Big Effect on Water Supply, E.P.A. Says While Noting Risks," NPR's "EPA Finds No Widespread Drinking Water Pollution From Fracking" and this CNN screenshot.

Big Oil and Gas, meanwhile, applauded the EPA's report, using it to push for more drilling. Erik Milito, a director at the American Petroleum Institute, told the New York Times that the EPA confirmed that "hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry best practices."

However, it is now evident that Obama administration EPA officials made eleventh hour edits to the report's top-line findings as well as corresponding press materials that clearly played down evidence of water contamination caused by fracking.

As Marketplace and APM Reports explained in their piece:

"It's not clear precisely who inserted or ordered the new phrasing. But emails acquired via the Freedom of Information Act show EPA officials, including press officers, met with key advisers to President Obama to discuss marketing strategy a month before the study's release. The emails also show EPA public relations people exchanging a flurry of messages between 4 and 11 p.m. on the eve of the study's release.

"The authenticity of the documents—before and after the changes—was confirmed independently by three people with knowledge of the study.

"In interviews with 19 people familiar with the research, some characterized the '(no) widespread, systemic' language as a 'bizarre conclusion' and 'irresponsible.' Others said they were 'surprised and disappointed' that top EPA officials used the phrase and said they had no idea it would become the headline until it came out."

The image below shows that the EPA's press release of the study—which condensed the 1,000 page report into the "not widespread, systemic" soundbite—were altered a day before the report was made public.

Draft press releases accompanying the EPA's long-awaited fracking assessment were changed to sound more fracking-friendly before the assessment was released. Marketplace

Conservation groups have long suspected some form of "political meddling" with the fracking contamination report.

"Enough is enough. We've suspected for months that the White House egregiously manipulated the headlines and summary findings of a draft study in order to obfuscate the details buried within—details confirming that fracking has caused numerous cases of water contamination," Food & Water Watch executive director Wenonah Hauter said in response to the Marketplace report.

"Today's report confirms this political meddling," she added. "It's time for the administration to acknowledge its intervention in the crafting of the draft study, and issue a final version that clearly and conclusively highlights that fracking does indeed cause water contamination."

Hauter is calling on President Obama to meet with communities that are most harmed by fracking and other fossil fuel projects such as the heavily contested Dakota Access Pipeline that threatens to contaminate drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota.

“Furthermore, before he leaves office, President Obama should meet with impacted individuals and hear directly their stories of suffering from serious health effects related to fracking," she said. "And he must protect communities directly in the path of future fossil fuel hazards. He must start by protecting the Standing Rock Sioux and taking the Dakota Access pipeline off the table for good."

EPA scientists are currently revising the study and taking comments from the public and the EPA's Science Advisory Board. The final version of the study is planned for release by the end of the year.

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"I mentioned [to] him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network," he said.

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U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with land managers, private landowners, university staff, and the media about federal forestry and land management at Boise State University on June 2, 2017. USDA photo by Lance Cheung

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